Joel Barlow High School students are about to take a survey that may lead to insight into how communities can help them face challenges and enhance their well-being.
“This survey will give the community an opportunity to find out where kids stand,” said Redding resident Eva Ortiz, the parent of two Joel Barlow High School students.
Ortiz is involved in the Easton-Redding Community Care Coalition (ERCCC), the group that pushed for the Attitudes and Behaviors Survey that was created by the Minneapolis-based Search Institute and will be administered the week of May 21 to 10th and 12th graders at Joel Barlow, and to eighth graders at Helen Keller Middle School in Easton and John Read Middle School in Redding.
“With the help of the ERCCC, it’s finally happening,” Ortiz said. The surveys have been administered to students in several towns in Fairfield County, but it’s the first time in Easton and Redding.
The online survey is the outgrowth of research with 3 million young people based on the Search Institute’s framework of 40 developmental assets, according to the institute’s website.
The assets include characteristics and behaviors that reflect positive personal growth as well as positive developmental experiences that the community provides young people.
The fewer assets young people have, the more likely they will engage in a risky behavior, Ortiz said, while more assets signify less risky behavior.
Survey questions measure the engagement in risky behavior, she said, and they’re available for viewing at search-institute.org.
The ERCCC, which aims to coordinate the area’s response to the threats of alcohol and substance misuse and abuse, was energized in recent years after a few car accidents involving local teenagers, and later with the developing statewide opioid addiction crisis, Ortiz said.
The group is composed of school administrators, parents, youth, government representatives, social workers, clergy, police chiefs, and counselors in the mental health field.
“It’s become a venue for frustrated parents, to raise their voices,” and was a driver for the Attitudes and Behaviors Survey, according to Ortiz.
“I was immediately on board,” she said. “I want to know what environment my kid is in.”
Maryanne Pieratti, a social worker at Joel Barlow, looks at the survey as a starting point.
“It’s going to give us a ton of information,” Pieratti said, focusing on both students’ needs and strengths.
“It would tell us, ‘What are our students feeling and thinking, what assets do they have, how do we build more assets, what are the strengths, and how do we build strengths?’”
The survey focuses on the “entire community,” Pieratti said, and it may reveal that students have a low perception of harm related to substance and alcohol use.
There are programs for eighth graders and high- schoolers that reflect the latest information on opioid addiction and the rise in anxiety levels, she said.
The survey aims to reveal what kids believe in, according to school Superintendent Thomas McMorran. “It’s anonymous but personal. I think our kids are better guarded and guided than at any time in the last three decades, but they have unrestricted access through cell phones to everything. They can get illegal access to really dangerous stuff. Connecticut has acknowledged its opioid crisis.”
At Joel Barlow, the Search Institute’s 40 developmental assets are used as part of the curriculum in the school’s wellness program, said Gina Pin, head of school. “It would be great to have data to support that” through survey results, she said.
The survey aims to show “what we could do better as a town,” Pin said. “It would help us understand where our students need us the most.”
Survey results will be available two weeks after it’s administered, and ERCCC members will review them, Pieratti said.
“Step one is to find out what’s going on,” she said, and then, based on the data, to find solutions or come up with programs.
“I encourage people to embrace the results of the survey,” said Allison Fulton, executive director of the Housatonic Valley Coalition Against Substance Abuse (HVCASA).
Fulton has been helping communities administer the surveys for the past decade.
The results are used as a “launching pad,” she said, and focus groups are often conducted with students who took the survey to clarify their answers.
In Danbury and Brookfield, survey results revealed that young people weren’t aware of services available to them in the community, she said. To remedy that, a youth summit was organized, where providers explained their services.
In another town, the survey showed that students didn’t feel welcome in the town’s business area, Pin said. It turns out that business owners in that town didn’t want students in their stores because their backpacks knocked merchandise off the shelves.
As a solution, a local church volunteered to have students store their backpacks in the church basement while they shopped.
“The town solved that problem,” Pin said. “The students felt heard in the community,” she said. Eventually, a youth council was set up so that students could take part in the local government.
In terms of solutions, “we try to be as creative as possible with existing resources,” Fulton said, and promote “simple fixes.”
In her research to find a suitable survey, she found the Search Institute survey was “easy to use,” she said, and employed “good science. It’s a nice, safe tool.”
Parents urged to opt in
In January, the Region 9 tri-board approved administering the survey, with the stipulation that the survey wouldn’t be given to a student unless the parent gives prior written permission.
Fewer students are expected to take the survey under this opt-in provision than they would under an opt-out process, where surveys are administered unless parents don’t give permission.
“I would encourage all fellow parents to consider allowing their child to participate by filling out the online form,” Ortiz said.
The more students who take the survey the better, since the data would provide more information, Fulton said. “We want it to be meaningful.”
“We would hope parents give their permission,” McMorran said. “The more students who take the survey, the better we can shape the profile.”
If all 574 students in eighth, 10th and 12th grade were to take the survey, the cost would be about $2,500, Pin said, and the survey is being funded by the ERCCC through a combination of grants, donations and fund-raising.
If a certain percentage of students take the survey and the results produce data, more grant money could be available to fund future surveys, Pin said.
The plan is to administer the survey every two years, Ortiz said. “In two years, we’ll measure the same kids and see if we moved the needle or not.”